Getting to Yes:  Candidates’ and Universities’ Strategies for a Successful Search

Jeff Harris, Managing Partner & Rick Skinner, Senior Consultant

Over the past year we have made special efforts to listen to the concerns and considerations of both clients and candidates as each works toward a successful completion of a search process.  Our efforts have been rewarded by some plain speaking on the part of those we serve – clients and candidates alike.

In addition, we have been interviewing provosts and deans at mostly American universities and they too have shared their thoughts on how searches might be improved.

Most candidates and universities or academic health centers are research-intensive and have the luxury of being very selective in their choices.  Candidates are securely ensconced in their current posts and need go nowhere at all, while institutions are continuing to be challenged to attract large pools of talent from which to draw the preferred finalists. 

But beyond these insights, we have learned that when you see one strong candidate or one fine medical or engineering school, the results are that you have seen one strong one candidate and one fine school.  Generalizations beyond this are risky.

Still, we can offer the following suggestions, beginning with candidates.

The Candidate’s Perspective

When we speak with prospective candidates for a position, often the first response is, “Thanks, but I am really quite happy here.”  Even if the potential employer is a major institution of note and prestige, most prospects have invested years and much talent and hard work in their current jobs.

If a potential candidate is prepared to listen further, the next caution light to go on is personal and includes:

• How will my partner/spouse react to news that I am being invited to be a candidate somewhere else?  What about his job?  Could we actually live in X?

A second amber warning then lights up.

• What about the kids?  Ryan, Sara and/or Ravi love their schools and have so many friends.  Won’t they be upset at even the prospect of moving?

A third consideration that usually arises is real estate:

• Could we sell our place?  For what?

From here on, the prospect begins to consider who at the recruiting institution is known, what research is going on, how successful have potential colleagues been in securing funding.  But the salient point here is that very personal concerns are involved in even considering a possible move, yet those seldom surface in the search process until much later on.  Speaking with one dean who successfully recruited 8 of 9 positions in the past year, he noted that there was virtually nothing that could be done to win the one that got away since spousal employment considerations were very complex and of the highest priority.  Moreover, many hiring administrators are specifically required not to discuss a candidate’s moving or spouse related issues until an offer is made.   By that time, much has been invested by both the institution and candidate, only to fall apart after months of discussion, monies spent on travel and time away from productivity by department faculty - all for naught.  

The Client University/Medical Center Perspective

We have had the good fortune to work with a number of outstanding institutions as clients.  In addition, our outreach to provosts and deans with whom we may not have worked previously was rewarded with time and great candor.  Here is what we learned from them:

• Even institutions with great prestige have to “sell” themselves to the best candidates.  Reputation and substantial resources are attractive, but good candidates usually already work at places with similar qualities, so time and effort has to be devoted to making a possible offer of employment – with all it entails on a personal and professional level – attractive enough to overcome the pull of the known and comfortable.

• Have the search firm explore with candidates their respective personal and professional concerns.  No two candidates are alike: each needs to be understood in her/his own right, and it can be awkward for the hiring organization to explore the personal considerations with candidates.  Stated differently, no surprises as the recruitment process moves to closure.

• At the same time, clients should make known early on the lengths to which they will go to recruit for a given position.  Across the country, universities and medical schools located in close proximity have both formal and informal means for collaborating to assist one another with spousal employment:  How far will the recruiting organization go in using such arrangements?

Some Suggestions for Successful Searches

Beware of falling in love with the CV in the case of the hiring institution and on the candidate’s part, the reputation of the institution.  A good search firm will have worked hard with its client to hone a position profile to what the people doing the hiring feel they need.  Don’t forget the profile because you are impressed by a resumé that is indeed impressive but not what you set out to hire.

Similarly, candidates need to know that the tables they will sit around for the next decade or more will not include the University of Amazing, but Robyn, Frank, Marilyn, Ali, Ojibo and Ken of the department or school of _____________.  And while it can be a real pleasure to be part of a great institution, you have to work with a relatively small group of people day after day, year after year.

Over and over again, we have found the “fit” of a finalist or a semi-finalist to be of extraordinary importance to both parties – candidate and client.  By the time finalists have been brought for interviews, the question of qualifications has usually been resolved.  What’s left is the answer to a tough question to answer:  Do I want this person as a colleague for the next 20 years?

Much is at stake when major research institutions seek out new talent and it is tempting to see the recruitment process as a version of “trial by fire.”  Forego the idea that suffering builds or reveals character and focus instead on the person and how to resolve just how well she or he will advance the organization.


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Harris Search Associates is a leading global executive search firm. Our higher education and academic medicine practices are focused on identifying and attracting leaders Presidents, Provosts, Deans, Department Chairs, Researchers, and Senior Administrators to support the growth of clients in the areas of research, science, engineering, academic medicine and commercial enterprises. We are the higher education headhunters of choice for universities around the globe.